Last week, I wrote about the increasing discourse around depression, anxiety and mental health issues. There has also been some very welcome recent publicity around one of the major causes of those issues: bullying. An ISPCC campaign, a cyberbullying awareness event in Limerick and parliamentary discussions have taken place against a backdrop of some disturbing high-profile media stories at home and in the US.
Bullying can have a devastating impact on mental health, and not just in childhood – the repercussions can reverberate on throughout adult life. For me, the bullying ended more than 20 years ago, yet it is only now, and with professional help, that I am really starting to deal with how it affected, and continues to affect, me. Though my depression over the last few months was triggered by recent stresses about work, career and finances, these anxieties are just symptoms of a lack of self-esteem and self-worth that I have felt most of my life. Bullying throughout my school years is largely responsible for a tension between my longing to belong and my terror of rejection and ridicule, a tension that has hobbled me ever since.
Back then, the answer to bullies was “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This, of course, is nonsense. I received plenty of bruises and bloody noses, but they didn’t last as long, nor were they felt so deep, as the injury to my self-image. Names should never hurt but they do, worse than sticks and stones – and they stick. Call a dog a name enough times and he’ll start to answer it, and it’s the same with us. You start to doubt yourself, you start to believe it, you start to think that there must be something to the reason these people hate you. I recently read something I wrote in my diary when I was 17, two years or so after the bullying ended. By that time, I had some new friends and a girlfriend, but I wrote that I didn’t know whether to trust that they actually did like me. I wrote that I had come to assume I automatically repulsed people, such was the evidence I’d had at school for too long. To really believe that “names will never hurt me”, you have to be sure of yourself, to have a strong sense of your own worth, regardless of what others say. What bullying and namecalling do is undermine and destroy any such self-worth, leaving you defenceless.
Bullying has evolved
I doubt most bullies appreciate the full and lasting impact of their actions. I’m sure none of the people who bullied me when I was at school have passed me a thought in 20 years. Likely, they have forgotten who I am, or if they do remember, they would probably dismiss it as harmless teasing, and think I took it too seriously. Certainly, the bullying I went through was mild in comparison to what I know was endured by others, but that just goes to show how harmful all bullying can be. I can only imagine what others who suffered far worse than I did have had to cope with. What compounds this situation and makes it even more harmful for 21st century kids is that bullying has evolved.
The advent and ubiquity of the internet has given bullies ever more sinister and insidious ways to bully – together with possibility of anonymity. In the US – in Torrington, Connecticut and Steubenville, Ohio – the child victims of alleged sexual assualt and rape by high school football players have been subjected to further abuse through social media by friends of the accused. One can only imagine the lasting psychological toll on those girls, the youngest of whom are 13. Tragically, sometimes it quickly becomes too much to bear and too late to repair. In the course of six weeks last autumn, Erin Gallagher from Donegal, Ciara Pugsley from Leitrim and Amanda Todd from Vancouver, Canada – took their lives after suffering bullying online. The suicide of Erin’s sister, Shannon, two months later illustrates that the damage of bullying reaches beyond even the victim.
Understand and speak
Probably due in many ways to such horrific results of cyberbullying, bullying is being discussed more openly and being taken increasingly seriously. In Ireland, the ISPCC Shield Campaign which has been running throughout March is taking a somewhat more proactive approach to tackling bullying than relying on well-meaning but well-nigh useless aphorisms. The campaign involved an Awareness-Raising week at the start of the month, culminating in a Day of Action on March 8th. It has also launched a dedicated text and online Bullying Support Service through Childline, and a self-evaluation kit for schools known as the Shield My School programme. Elsewhere, tomorrow, students from Limerick Institute of Technology are running a “cyber school” event at the Dell campus in Limerick in “an effort to promote positive mental health by examining issues around cyberbullying and online safety.” It is encouraging to see that there is also some political will behind this, with cyberbullying being addressed by the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Communications Committee (even if certain of the committee’s members catastrophically failed to properly research the concepts involved).
As with mental health issues, the increasing discussion and discourse around bullying is a positive development. Since bullying can lead to depression, mental health issues and suicide, the key again is to understand the problem and then to speak of it. Bullies thrive on fostering a sense of powerlessness. Actions like these are about fostering the power to do something about it.